SEATTLE - As another academic year begins, the gracious University of Washington campus is deceptively calm. You'd never guess at the academic carnage that has recently taken place behind its ivy-covered walls.
Hidden in the
bowels of the university's mechanical engineering building, Jim
Karr's rambling office is lined with books on tropical forest
plants and freshwater ecology. It is a few days before the start of
fall term, but this year the Institute for Environmental Studies
(IES), which he's headed since 1991, won't be offering courses.
Even though five academic departments here are
courting him, Karr is still angry about the demise of the
"The decision to eliminate IES came
based on what IES had been in the past," says the balding, imposing
biologist, whose credentials include a stint at the Smithsonian
Institution and an endowed chair at the Virginia Polytechnic
Institute. "The people who made the decision didn't want to be
disturbed by the facts of the situation."
facts as Karr sees them go something like this: Former forestry
dean David Thorud was looking for an excuse to kill the institute.
When three senior institute staff members quit last year in protest
over some of Karr's personnel decisions and his attempts to sever
the institute's close ties to Seattle environmental groups, Thorud
got his excuse.
The institute, created in the
post-Earth Day euphoria of 1972, was unique in the Northwest. It
offered interdisciplinary programs in atmospheric sciences,
conservation biology, and public health and the environment,
drawing faculty and students from across the
For most of its history, it was
controlled by four staff members: three respected scientists plus
an assistant director who was active in Seattle's environmental
Karr shook things up. In a strong
symbolic act, he cancelled the program's Sierra Club membership.
"Our philosophy has long been that environmental studies is less an
environmental major and more a discipline to encourage
interdisciplinary thinking," he says. After ties to the
environmental groups were severed, "We found faculty across campus
interested in teaching who would not have touched it before."
Karr believes he was beginning to turn things
around in other ways as well: The number of majors increased from
12 to 60 between 1991 and 1995, and two-thirds of its courses last
year had waiting lists. Last year the institute received its first
positive internal academic review in many years. Karr was making
plans to expand evening courses so the institute would reach the
wider Seattle community.
institutional support evaporated in 1994 after three university
administrators who backed his leadership left their posts and
forestry dean Thorud was promoted to acting provost. In October,
Thorud and acting graduate dean Dale Johnson informed Karr the
institute "no longer had a purpose." It would be eliminated; the
decision was final.
A wave of appeals protested
the decision. Typical was a letter Oregon fisheries biologist Dan
Bottom wrote to Thorud: "By choosing to abolish (the institute),
University of Washington is eliminating the kind of collaborative
learning experience that society most needs to foster a more
positive relationship between nature and culture."
A review committee called for the preservation
of the institute, which it called "a unique resource for the
University and the region." But the administration ignored the
committee's findings. And in May 1995, an appeals board upheld the
Thorud maintains it was a
budgetary decision forced by cuts in state funding. "The institute
had a huge amount of money," he says. "A lot could be recovered -
at least $1 million" over two years. But Karr contends, and the
review committee agreed, that the savings would amount to about
$350,000 over two years. He calls the university's decision part of
"a significant and systematic effort to disenfranchise those with a
non-conventional approach toward the forest."
What political motive would the
university have for killing a popular and growing program? Perhaps
this: Karr has taken a strong stand on environmental issues in the
Northwest. He was the lead signatory among more than 125 scientists
who urged President Clinton to implement "comprehensive watershed
and salmon habitat restoration" in his Northwest forest plan. More
recently, Karr joined seven other scientists in a strongly worded
critique of post-fire salvage logging. David Bayles of the Pacific
Rivers Council calls the institute's work "one of the most
important things that has helped shape the debate over streams and
fisheries in the Northwest."
Karr's high profile
may not have set well with Thorud, who built a record of strong
support for the timber industry as a member of the Washington Board
of Natural Resources. As forestry dean, Thorud had an automatic
seat on the state board, which decides the management of 2 million
acres of state-owned land. In 1985, Thorud voted to increase
logging on these lands.
Thorud has supported
research that some timber executives didn't like (see sidebar this
page). He insists the school is changing, with its research focus
shifting to the study of forest ecosystems. But he adds that the
school "works with the timber industry. It's still a $9 or $10
billion industry in our state."
contend he has a built-in conflict of interest while serving on the
board. He is married to Ann Goos, a lobbyist for Boise Cascade
Corp., which buys timber from state lands.
says he hardly thinks the institute's elimination will silence
Karr. "Jim Karr has a national and probably an international
reputation. I'm sure he'll continue to practice his profession."
Some say the story is far more complex than the
warring environmental politics of two powerful men - it includes
workaday realities like cash flow, administrative structure and
academic culture. The state of Washington has slashed funding for
higher education, although the institute was the single largest
victim in UW's recent history. The institute had no structure to
capture any of the research money brought in by its faculty -
faculty which it shared with their home departments. And research
funding is becoming the lifeblood of a university that now ranks
second in the nation only to Johns Hopkins in attracting
"The culture at UW is very
entrepreneurial," says forestry professor Margaret Shannon. "It's a
grant-producing, research-producing university that's got a very
It's a different kind of
school than the land-grant universities that host most of the
West's forestry programs - places like Oregon State, whose
agricultural roots and extension service foster a sort of
countrified collegiality on campus and a connection to communities
But there is a new effort afoot to
promote interdisciplinary thinking on environmental issues at the
University of Washington. Last month, the university's president
formed a task force to investigate how to strengthen ties among
students, faculty and departments involved in environmental studies
- ties that wouldn't necessarily be formed around an institute,
center or school.
"I think the administration
basically decided to let the existing structure fall and start all
over again," says one professor. "The task force has been very well
chosen. I feel pretty positive that they'll say what now, today,
needs to be done."
Karr feels differently.
"They're essentially setting about doing what we proposed to do a
year and a half ago, and would have completed a year ago," he says.
"I feel betrayed by a university that asked me to do something, and
when I did it they eliminated the program."
Déja` vu all over
The institute is only one of several recent
casualties among environmental education projects at the University
of Washington, which one researcher calls "phenomenally hardball
behind a thin veneer of respectability."
1993, while still dean of the College of Forest Resources, Thorud
removed Jerry Franklin, an internationally known "new forestry"
expert, from the Olympic Natural Resources Center, based in the
isolated town of Forks. Also given the boot was director Gordon
Smith. The Washington State Legislature and the College of Forest
Resources had created the project to conduct forestry and ocean
research on the Olympic Peninsula. Forks, a hotbed of wise-use
activism, had resisted the project.
acting forestry dean Dale Cole cut the budget of the Center for
Streamside Studies by $115,000, or 36 percent. The highly regarded
research program absorbed 56 percent of the forestry school's
entire budget cut. Cole said there was no place else to cut after
the forestry school sustained a 20 percent budget reduction two
years ago. "We just couldn't cut our undergraduate program
further." (See sidebar previous page.)
university's most recent and perhaps most telling episode came in
July when it attempted to undermine the state's innovative proposed
plan for Washington trust lands. The proposal aims to avoid future
endangered species gridlock by designing timber sales to protect
spotted owls, marbled murrelets, salmon and more than 80 other
sensitive species. It is the most far-reaching plan of its sort in
the nation. It has already proved its worth; last year, after the
state reduced its timber sale program while conducting extensive
surveys for threatened species, it sold 607 million board-feet of
timber from trust lands - more than any other public agency in the
Northwest. The habitat plan, if accepted by the federal government,
will allow sales from state trust lands to continue at that level
Nevertheless, the UW Board of
Regents said it would withhold support for the new plan until State
Public Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher responded to an economic
critique prepared by four university forest economists. They had
questioned the decision to sell timber from state lands on an
even-flow, sustainable basis, rather than capitalizing on
fluctuating market conditions by selling more when the market is
hot. But Belcher said she's required to keep the flow of timber
steady by state law.
Thorud says the regents are
just being fiscally prudent. "We're talking about the state
entering into a 100-year contract with the federal government," he
says. "I think it is reasonable to ask what is the impact on the
income of the schools and universities."
says that position reveals a lot about the university's vision - or
lack of it. "If the university is going to let faculty make
recommendations on what we do and don't do, you would think they
would put together a broad-based group of faculty," she says. "They
didn't work with their environmental faculty or their wildlife
faculty. That's interesting, since this is a habitat plan. I'm
disappointed that the university does not see its role on the board